I was late falling under the spell of the opulent Downton Abbey, but burned through the first two series in preparation for last year's Christmas special, so this marks the first time I've experienced ITV's Emmy and BAFTA-winning period drama in HD and with adverts. I approve unreservedly of the shiny high-definition, which gives everything even more of an immaculate air, but the number of adverts was slightly irritating over 90-minutes. (I'll be recording and watching on delay from next week.) The premiere itself was very entertaining stuff; feeling like it'll recapture the effortless poise of series 1 without too many awkward blunders like the patchier second series. Creator Julian Fellowes came to global attention thanks to the movies (Gosford Park, Vanity Fair), and it's telling that the best episodes of Downton Abbey are often the ones with the length of a feature-film.
It was largely business as usual in this opener, but there were intriguing setups for future conflict and strife. Most markedly, Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) received news that a bad investment in a Canadian railway has lost him the lion's share of his wife Cora's (Elizabeth McGovern) fortune—which thus puts Downton and the Crawley family at severe risk of bankruptcy. Luckily, Matthew (Dan Stevens) has received word he's likely to inherit a fortune from a relative of his late fiancée, but his current wife-to-be Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) isn't best pleased when he makes it clear the windfall won't automatically be used to bail her father out. It's a little contrived how these two events occurred in tandem, and I only hope the resolution isn't as straightforward as Matthew eventually giving in to Mary's pleading.
It was also fun to see Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay) visiting home with her working class husband Tom Branson (Allen Leech), the Crawley's erstwhile Irish chauffeur, if only because he's one of the few characters willing to openly critique the dynasty his wife's belongs to, speaking as an Irish republican with a resentment of the British government regarding their treatment of his homeland. It certainly feels like the show's edging towards the cultural change, post-Great War (it's now 1920), when many of the country's traditions and social systems were swept away. The introduction of Cora's mother, Martha Levinson (the legendary Shirley MacLaine), certainly felt like a way to symbolise the shift of power away from the British Empire to the United States. She came full of jibes about the English and their aversion to change, and certainly worked well as a counterpoint to the show's other master of sly insults—Dowager Countess Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith). It'll be interesting to see if these two strong, acid-tongued women keep clashing over their opinions of the world, or become firm friends.
Away from those two storylines, and the surprisingly early wedding of Matthew and Mary (which could easily have been dragged out for many episodes, but thankfully wasn't), this premiere covered a fair amount of other small events: Mr Bates (Brendan Coyle) is still in prison for murdering his first wife, being visited by current wife Anna (Joanne Froggatt), and there was a brief moment when Bates threatened his new cellmate that made us question his innocence (could Bates really become a killer when pushed hard enough?); Miss O'Brien (Siobhan Finneran) pulled strings to get her nephew Alfred (Matt Milne) employed as a footman, to the chagrin of butler Carson (Jim Carter); arrogant Thomas (Rob James-Collier) made snide remarks about Bates (as usual); Daisy (Sophie McShera) felt subjugated by cook Mrs Patmore (Lesley Nicol) so went on strike; Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) fell deeper in love with drippy Sir Anthony (Robert Bathurst) after he exposed a prank to spike Branson's drink at dinner; and so on and so forth.
It was all comfortingly familiar, really. There was no major shakeup here, although the possibility of one regarding the Crawley's finances was well introduced to play out over the season. The show knows its audience and gives them exactly what they want. It's brilliantly produced and looks stunning on camera, while the soap-style plotting and period setting have proven a winning combination.
It can also be relied on to suddenly throw up a genuinely touching moment, such as the scene where Mary and Matthew share a kiss with their eyes closed on the eve of their wedding day, to avoid bad luck and put a quarrel to rest. It was a great moment, especially with the touch of Mary opening her eyes just to check Matthew had kept his word about keeping his closed. I suppose that's the key to Downton Abbey's success: it's ultimately no better than any other soap in terms of plot and characters, but looks a thousand times glossier, and Fellowes has the ability to give things a little touch of magic and class. The downside being that Fellowes can't always write to an exacting standard every single week, so there are times when the show slips into outright silliness or latches onto overused ideas in an effort to keep things ticking over. As I said before, he seems to work better when writing the "special event" instalments (premieres, finales, specials) over the bread-and-butter weekly hours.
Overall, I enjoyed Downton Abbey's eagerly-awaited premiere a great deal, and particularly liked how its concerns echoed our own today. In 1920 there was a feeling of uncertainty in the air and financial difficulties for many people, which is pretty much the flavour of things in 2012. You can make the solid argument that Fellowes has idealised a way of life that was actually a lot harsher and crueler on the working classes, by insisting that his fictional Crawley's are benevolent souls, and it's certainly a drama that takes shortcuts too often, but for pure Sunday night escapism it's hard to knock. I just hope series 3 is more consistent than the preceding one, and the story develops in a more plausible and unpredictable way.
written by Julian Fellowes / directed by Brian Percival / 16 September 2012 / ITV1